An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive
Representative Bill Van Regenmorter
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Anne: Good morning, Bill. I'm going to start by asking you to state and spell your name.
Bill: My name is Bill Van Regenmorter. And you spell that, Bill is pretty easy to spell. Van Regenmorter a little tougher, V-A-N-R-E-G-E-N-M-O-R-T-E-R.
Anne: Thank you, Bill, for joining us and for being the first interview in the Oral History Project, West coast version. I want to start by asking you, how and why did you first get involved in the crime victims' movement?
Bill: Impacted by some victims, two widows, both of whose husbands had been killed in a drunk driving crash. The guy who killed them both had a lo, a record as long as anyone's arm relative to drunk driving. Finally, ended that record by killing these two young men, fathers of small children, husbands of young wives. They, the two wives simply wanted to attend the trial. The trial was held in the county, some distance from where they lived. And when they called the judge, the judge told them that this was none of their business, that a mat, a criminal matter in Michigan is represented by the prosecuting attorney who represents the State of Michigan and the defendant and that the victims have no place there. So they called the prosecutor and the prosecutor, though a little more politely, said the same basic thing. And they, at the time I was running for office and they approached me with their experience and I thought this is absolutely inappropriate way to treat somebody who's been so victimized by a crime. And so I made a pledge that I would start writing a Bill of Rights for crime victims in Michigan.
Anne: And what year were those clients?
Bill: That was 1982.
Anne: So that was when MADD was actually very basic at that point. There wasn't the huge national anti-drunk driving movement.
Bill: That's right. MADD sort of came in later, in certainly, in a very powerful way, but it was a bit later.
Anne: When you got involved in 1982, can you describe what the field was like in terms of victims' rights and services, but also maybe give us, if you would, about the context of the era in 1982 and take us as far as 2003 as you want to.
Bill: Well, I assumed, in 1982 and 1983, we really began working on it in 19, early in 1983. I assumed there'd be lots of material, research material for us to use and found there was very, very little. We contacted every state and said something like this, "Do you have a Bill of Rights for crime victims? And if you do send us a copy." Thirty-eight states responded. Only two had anything resembling victims' mandated, legally mandated victims' rights... one of which was from a close friend, Steve Derene in Wisconsin, a beautiful list of what should be mandated legal rights, but they were preceded by the words "it is recommended that the following rights be granted victims." And then it was, it concluded with the phrase that "if the resources allow." Well, when you say in government "it is recommended," that is meaningless. Those are, we call as weasel words. They just have absolutely no impact whatsoever. And if you mix some activity contingent upon resources, it will never happen because states never have enough resources. So, we used the one wonderful document, was a report from now Judge Haight... with, who appointed her to head a task force.
Of course,President Regan appointed her to head a task force. And that Task Force Report became an important part of our consideration. And we simply went everywhere we could to get some experiences. We relied upon all the professionals in Michigan who would have any connection whatsoever with victims.
Anne: You are known as one of the earliest leaders in terms of really pushing victims as a policy agenda. What was that like, just in terms of trying to make victims' issues frankly, just matter, in terms of legislatures and also if you could talk a little bit more about how others sort of come into the mission.
Bill: We found there was little reception, little good reception for the idea of crime victims' rights. And the argument that was put forward is an old one. And that is that somehow granting rights to victims of crime does somehow diminishes the rights for the criminal defendant. So our first hurdle was to convince people that, "No, there can be a parallel track. We are, we want to protect rights for criminal defendants and not take them away. But we think that the person who typically is most impacted by the crime ought to have rights." The person who chaired the committee in that, in the House, the committee that heard the bill initially, was very much in opposition and kept offering amendments which would have effectively uh... gutted the program entirely. We were able, however, finally to bring in a number of victims, a number of law enforcement officers, a number of prosecutor offices to demonstrate how badly needed recognition for victims really was.
Anne: Looking at your pioneering area of victims' assistance -- and I'm going to stick with policy, but maybe go into a few other areas as well -- what challenges did you and your colleagues face, both in Michigan and also other policy makers, in affecting change that would benefit crime victims?
Bill: First we had to convince people we could do it. It wasn't really a common thing at all. People liked to talk about victims and victims should have rights, but when one looked in Michigan's law, and we've looked in a number of other states as well, you really couldn't find any position that gave a standing to victims in statute or in policy or in practice and certainly not in the constitution.
Anne: And, Michigan is renown, Bill, for being the first state along with Florida, I'm not sure who did it first, to pass the state Constitutional Amendment. And why do we need a Constitutional Amendment on the state level? And then we'll move into the higher level.
Bill: Well, victims' rights, Michigan's Constitution describes explicit rights for the criminal defendant in a number of very direct ways and there are at least seventeen of them that are explicitly stated and a host of others that are implied in practice are actually applied. Victims were not mentioned in Michigan's Constitution. Again, victims are the persons who are most impacted by the crime. Our argument for a Constitutional Amendment was that we had to elevate the rights of crime victims to the same, at minimum, the same level as the criminal and that we had to provide some incentive for the system, kind of an umbrella mandate which I think the constitution is for the system to make sure that crime victims' rights are taken seriously. I, we did it sort of backwards in Michigan. I wrote the Crime Victims' Rights Act, the statutory provisions first and we did the Constitutional Amendment second. But it gave us a chance to see how things worked. So with our... our, as you know our Crime Victims' Rights Act is very comprehensive. It really covers rights for the victims starting at the time of the crime. We have kind of a Miranda-like provision which requires a law enforcement officer to, within 24 hours to give the victim notice of certain rights and so on. Then they'll let us proceed.
And law enforcement, prosecution and courts were, took it seriously because it was statutory, but we had a few who did not. We had a judge, one of our, one of the provisions is the right to attend trial with, under most circumstances. And we had a case where a judge decided to eject a victim by a motion from the defense in spite of meeting all the qualifications in the Crime Victim's Rights Act for staying there. I talked to that judge who said something like, "I'll do what I want in the courtroom. The legislature isn't going to tell me what to do." Now Michigan has a, the kind of division of responsibility in its Constitution. It does give practice and procedure authority to judges while it gives jurisdictional authority to the legislature. And we had an... another case where a woman who had been attacked viciously, her throat was cut in attempt to murder her, wanted to give an impact statement. Again, that's a clear st... statutory right in Michigan's Crime Victims' Rights Act, that the judge must permit that statement and must consider that statement as well.
So as she stood before the judge with a huge bandage over the cut in her neck and said, "Your," started, "Your Honor, this is what the crime has done to me." The judge stopped her in mid-sentence and said, "Look, I've had a big day. I'm busy. I'm tired. I've heard all of this before." And absolutely refused to let her continue her impact statement. Now that happened to occur in front of news cameras. The local television station was taping the sentencing and so, because I wrote the Crime Victims' Rights Act, my office is really a clearing house for victim concerns in Michigan. And we get, I get a call at least every single day from a victim or a victim advocate somewhere, usually in Michigan, but not always. So I had a call immediately from a victim advocate and said, "You won't believe what's happened" and sent the tape of the judge making that statement. And it is just a bold contradiction of the rights of crime victims. I did talk to the judge later. But those two incidents plus a few a more made me determine that we needed to elevate the rights of victims beyond the statute itself and support it with a Constitutional Amendment. And that's how the Constitutional Amendment became, well it was a, that's how it started.
Anne: Did you do a petition drive, or what venue did you choose, because all 33 states have used different venues to pass their Constitutional Amendments?
Bill: What... the legislature can put something on the ballot, a constitutional amendment on the ballot by passing the resolution with a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. So I introduced such a resolution. We simply distilled.. by that time our Crime Victims' Rights Act had developed pretty completely and was very comprehensive. So we simply distilled those fundamental rights and went back to the drawing boards to make sure that any other rights that we hadn't thought about ought to be in there and did some legal research and put it before the legislature. It was now people are sensing, in Michigan the legislature is sensitized to crime victims' rights and I am very pleased to that, about that. So it passed the House. It passed the Senate with a two-thirds vote and went on the ballot that way, passed overwhelmingly. In fact, it's not real easy to put things on the ballot in Michigan, not as easy as in some other states. And frankly the group we had promoting-- it was a bunch of volunteers and victims from all over the state, but we worked together very well.
We had a low budget. About $3,000 was our total budget. By the way, getting a Constitutional Amendment in Michigan is viewed as a $3 million project at minimum. We had uh, at the day of... the day of the uh, before the election we had $300 left in our purse, unspent. And always a nervous campaigner, I thought I'd hate to lose this constitutional amendment by about two votes because we didn't do what we should do. So we hired a pilot with a airplane to tow a banner around Michigan's principle cities for the last, he was willing to do it for $300, exactly what we had left to net out our purse. Well, the day of the election, it was overcast, almost zero visibility. One person, only one person out of the whole State of Michigan told me they had actually seen the banner. The banner said, "Justice for victims. Vote yes on B." It was Proposal B at that time. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Amendment passed by the largest number of votes and the biggest margin of any in the history of Michigan and I might say with the least amount of money spent.
So it, victims' rights graduated very quickly in Michigan and that's sort of a background of the Constitutional Amendment. We did, another way of doing a Constitutional Amendment, I know what your question is going in that direction, is for the public to do it by petition. But because I was in the legislature and could do so, by that time I had been sort of well-known for, in Michigan, for standing up for victims and that's some... something that I'm proud of. I think we, I think standing up for victims uh... meets a commitment. I made a commitment that when I was first elected, in fact I use uh... not to get so religious here, but I use a verse from Proverbs as my legislative motto. And whether a person is religious or not it makes some sense. It says -- Proverbs 31, Verse 8 -- "Speak up for those who can't speak for themselves." And that's I think what victim advocates do in a, an outstanding way. I've been privileged to work with some wonderful advocates.
Anne: Actually, this is a great segue, Bill, because you just talked a little bit about some of the tactics, but in the early days, what were some of the secrets or the strategies or the tactics that you employed or others employed that were successful? And I think from your perspective, it's passing laws, but also you helped build a lot of victim assistance programs -- system-based, community-based, and so on. What were some of the secrets?
Bill: The, we found that implementation is, of course, the most significant, writing a law saying victims should have rights. In fact, our law does not say "victims should have rights." Our law says, "victims do have rights." And translating that into action was not easy. We determine that the professionals most likely to implement victims rights at all levels would be the prosecutors' offices because they intend to be there. So, we assigned in the law itself, we assigned the implementation to prosecutors' offices and provided that they had someone in their office who would be dedicated as a victim witness advocate or sometimes they're called, "coordinators." The prosecutors in Michigan corporately raised the issue of "this is wonderful and we certainly are all for it and," by the way, I must say prosecutors were very, very supportive, but they raised the eternal question, "What about money? Who's going to pay for this?" And Michigan had a law at that time, a court decision I should say, at that time that did not permit us to put an assessment, a blanket assessment against convicted defendants.
And so we were confined to using the general fund of the state of Michigan to pay for them, but we were successful in doing that. I made a commitment that I would fight to use general fund money to support the implementation of crime victims' rights and that worked. Now that brought us up to 1988 with the Constitutional Amendment. One of the first things I wanted to do with the Constitutional Amendment was to eliminate this court case, it was called, the case was called "Barber," to eliminate the effect of that court case so that we could put an assessment against convicted defendants. So, the last provision in our Constitutional Amendment, the provisions in our Amendment it, our Amendment is not very long, but it is in a state with thirty thousand lawyers -- Michigan, that is. It has never been challenged, ever. And it works ... it works very well. The last provision says the legislature may provide for an assessment against convicted defendants to pay for crime victims' rights. Once the Constitution passed we, that superseded that court case and we do that. We assess convicted criminals, $60 for a felony, $50 for, what we call "a serious misdemeanor." Those are misdemeanors that carry some victimization with them as contrasted to what we call, "spitting on the sidewalk" misdemeanors.
And that brings in money. That money is, we, by putting the law of the, the statutory scheme for the distribution, we require that that long restitution be the first thing ordered by the judge. That's required in our law. And second that it be the first thing collected. Now that money is then distributed to the Victim Witness Advocate Offices in every county in Michigan and all 83 counties in Michigan now have one.
Bill: Prosecutor-based. So, they're paid directly. They, we pay for... we pay for the typical activities of a prosecutor-based victim witness advocacy. If there is money left over that money goes into the Crime Victim Compensation Fund, which helps pay expenses for victims who have been injured as a result of the crime. That money has been coming in very well and we're about to do an audit of the difference jurisdictions to find out if there are those who may not be sending in all the money or ordering it or collecting it in a way that we think that the statute clearly says. So it has become a self-funded process, both the Compensation Fund and crime victims' rights without tax money.
Anne: One of the few states to do so, we might add. Do you think there were any failures in our field -- we're 31 years-old now -- have there been any failures or things that we could have done differently or better?
Bill: Well, we should have done it earlier. It took a while. You have been in this a long time, Anne, and I know that you have a better grasp of failures than I do. I don't know of failures. I know of some successes. Uh, and uh, but... but I, the failures maybe have been informational kinds of failures. I've been invited to speak from time to time in other states. And the story is almost always different. But I'll not forget a story from one of the states I visited. A victim came up to me after I spoke and described how her daughter had been kidnapped, raped, murdered, and dismembered. And she had to identify her remains from a shoebox full of bones. And she simply wanted to talk to her legislature and was unable to make an appointment, was unable to make that arrangement. I thought that was incredible that a legislator wouldn't pay attention. But we've, I think in the early days, it was viewed as an entirely legal matter and, therefore, didn't deserve policy consideration by legislatures. In other states I found that quite frankly, the committees that would handle crime victims' rights often were dominated by defense attorneys, many of whom are outstanding and have a real sensitivity for victims, but some of them view victims' rights as somehow mitigating the rights of the defendant. Again, we made sure that in Michigan that was clearly not what we were af, what we were about.
Anne: What do you think changed, Bill, that made legislatures pay attention in Michigan, but I also want you to think about all 50 states because the movement today is considered quite effective and strong and you just told us a story of how it wasn't always so. Tell the young'ins today what made a difference.
Bill: Well, I think the difference was we had people both at the individual state level and at the national level even involved in NOVA or in the National Victim Center, the successors to that, was a successor to the Sunny von Bulow Victim Advocacy Group and others. You did something that at state level I don't think we could do. You brought the national media to uh, to some attention. And that attention was gen... generated information for everybody about victims and victims' right. It was simply not the topic of discussion. It wasn't, and I don't know why precisely, it wasn't viewed as a top uh... policy issue, but it simply wasn't. There was an attitude almost I think of leave it to somebody else to do. So I think at a national level groups which you represent and a number of other people with whom you and I have both worked, brought an attention that could only be brought by some national attention and then some national promotion.
Anne: If you were going to identify one greatest accomplishment that has promoted victims' rights and needs, Bill, what would it be and why?
Bill: Probably the impact statement process would be the one. The public often thinks that restitution is the most important to victims. And we have very strong restitution language, pages of it-- how it... it must be ordered as a priority. It must be collected as a priority. It must be given first priority and all those sorts of things. And yes, restitution is important, but victims want the sense of justice that an impact statement gives. In our law we not only give them the right to do it orally or they can do it in writing or they can do both. In fact, they can do a, there's a third option if they simply want to talk to the person who prepares the sentencing report for the judge, they can do that as well. It requires a judge, that the judge listen and it gives a sense of getting some justice to the victim. In most cases they are never made whole and they recognize that going in that they are never going to be made whole, but at least it is...I view that as one of the most important rights in our law, at least.
Anne: Bill, what's needed today to continue the growth and professionalism of our field, or if you can think of anything that's missing that will keep the programs ahead, if you will.
Bill: Well, I think it's important to recognize that there has to be a system in place. And at the state level I think that is not always the case, but a system organized, backed by statute, hopefully backed by Constitutional Amendment and... and at the state level is, I think critically important to keep crime victims' rights as a viable issue and as an issue that is progressing. I think getting together, comparing notes, all the victim advocates in Michigan and I get together about three times a year, informally, but it's... it's, but regularly. And those are very educational. My conversations with people in the national scene, yourself, just for example, Steve Twist, David Beatty and many others... shouldn't start naming them because there are a lot of wonderful people at the national level who have just insisted that we not let crime victims' rights die and they have not.
Anne: The juvenile justice system... it was something that back in 1983...were you looking at the juvenile justice system and what's changed over the past 30 years?
Bill: Well, we weren't. In 1983 we weren't. In fact the prevailing philosophy was what we call, "a treatment philosophy" and that is that all kids are basically good. And even if they commit horrible crimes just uh... giving them some psychological counseling and so on, is going to be enough. We found out later that juveniles commit some of the most horrendous crimes and can be serial killers. And we've had a couple of those cases in Michigan within the last ten years. So we used a different set of language. We didn't call them crimes. We called them offenses. We didn't call it a trial. We called it an adjudication. We didn't call it a sentence. We called it a disposition, all of which denied the criminality component in what some juveniles do. Now I'm not suggesting in any way that we treat juveniles generally like adults.
I think there has to be a separate system for them. But the problem at least in Michigan for a time was that diversionary programs be... became so informal that the requirements for notice and participation and restitution and protection and so on that we had for victims of adult crimes were not being given to victims of juvenile crimes. And again some of those were the kinds of vicious crimes that made adult crimes look not quite as a bad. So in 1988 we did a couple of things. One, I added, our original Act covered victims of felony crimes. And by 1988 we recognized that there were some misdemeanors that carried with them significant victimization. So we made a list of those. We called them, "serious misdemeanors" and put in place the full panoply of rights for victims of misdemeanors, of serious misdemeanors. We also then decided that we needed to deal with victims of juvenile crime. The juvenile system is so very different. It's much less, as you well know, it's much less formal. And so some of our courts frankly with heavy dockets maybe and just trying to reduce their loads and maybe for other reasons as well, would put in place diversions. Now I like diversions. 01:29:20;1 I encourage diversions when they are justified. But what was happening is it was being used as a method, either consciously or unconsciously, to cut out the victim in the process. So, we finally changed our Crime Victims' Rights Act and put it into three components. One, Article One is or Chapter One, requires full victims' rights for felony victims. Article Two, for... for juvenile victims of juvenile crime will, which would equate to adult crime. And Article Three would be for serious misdemeanors.
Anne: You were the first state then, again, to, in 1988, to tackle the whole juvenile justice system issue. Bill, advice. What advice can you give to professionals and volunteers that have more recently joined our field -- in the last from one to ten years -- that weren't there in 1982?
Bill: Well, they know a lot more about it than I do and there are particularly those who have become advocates there in the thick of things. I would say it is a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. It's a wonderful vocation or avocation, volunteer or full-time professional, working with the victims is extremely rewarding.
Anne: What vision do you have, Bill Van Regenmorter, for the future of our field?
Bill: Well, I think we... we've been looking at a national Constitutional Amendment now for some years. And I think without going into specifics that there is a form of national uh, a nat... national Constitutional Amendment that makes, that will make some sense. I think it needs to make sure that it includes uh, state (Change of tape)
Anne: Bill, back to the vision for the future of the field.
Bill: Well, first would be I think a Crime Victims' Rights Act comprehensive law in every state in the country. I'm not telling other states what they should do, but I think it is a noble effort. I think it responds to one of the things that state government ought to be doing, that is providing for the public protection. This is a form of public protection. Second, I think there is some merit to the concept of a national Constitutional Amendment. I think it needs to be carefully drafted, which goes, I guess without saying, so it doesn't preempt what states have already done, but maybe builds upon it, supports it and maybe provides an umbrella under which states which have not formed Constitutional Amendments or Crime Victims' Rights Act or either give them some incentive to do so.
Anne: What is it gonna take, Bill, to pass a Federal Amendment?
Bill: Well, it requires ratification by three-quarters of the state. So the states will have a big voice in it. A number of states have their own Constitutional Amendments. A number of states, like Michigan, have their own statute. So I think part of what will have to happen is, the states will have to be satisfied that they won't be preempted. That second, that they won't be repl, that what they've done won't be replaced. And third, that there be a cooperation that gives them the freedom and flexibility to do the right thing under an umb, a kind of a foundational umbrella is maybe the best way I can put it.
Anne: Do you think that you will see a Federal Constitutional Amendment passed?
Bill: It's going to be difficult because of what I just mentioned. Those, I think concerns that states are going to have about, states already are concerned about the federal government imposing itself on states. It's just one of those things that happens. It's kind of uh... an informal Tenth Amendment concern but so there's a built-in reluctance I think on the part of some states to do that. I don't, if your question is, what is it going to take? I think it's going to take a cooperative effort in language that is probably supportive of those states already well into the Constitutional Amendment at the state level in statutory phase. And to encourage those who are not into that, to move forward. Probably going to involve some money and I know at a deficit budget time such as we're in as we speak that may not be an easy thing to promise.
Anne: More than $3,000.
Bill: Yeah. (Laughs)
Anne: Bill, what's your greatest fear for the field? Do you have any fears?
Bill: I really, I don't have a greatest fear. I think that there's, maybe I should have, but I can't think of a greatest fear. Well, certainly a great fear would be any diminishment of crime victims' rights, in particular, the movement. I think the movement has been powerful. It's been great to see the different organizations, victim organizations particularly pull together. There's been I know some very healthy discussion and some disagreement on some aspects, but I think it is healthy and I think it shows a viability to the movement that inaction or just a quiet acceptance doesn't depict.
Anne: Could you say something about the not-for-profit emergency fund for victims?
Bill: I, it's been my experience and I'm sure others who work with victims have had the same experience that, some... sometimes victims because of the crime are left without any resource and have an immediate crises and emergency and no safety net. In Michigan I founded something we call the "Crime Victim Foundation." Well, we call it that because it is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit corporation. Its purpose is simple. It's ...it is operated entirely by volunteers and its purpose is to be a last-resort safety-net for victims of crime who, because of the crime, through no fault of their own, face an immediate crises. It then has a small grant program and we're, we raise money for it. Our victim advocates around the state of Michigan hold bake sales, hold auctions, sometimes hold raffles and use that money to fund the Crime Victim Foundation. And we request everyday out, a... a fast example ... a disabled person whose only means of transportation was a small scooter to go to work, to visit a mother who was in the hospital, that was stolen. It was recovered, but this person was unable to pay the storage fee for it.
And so for the lack of a couple of hundred dollars, lost the scooter, lost the ability to get to work, lost the ability to visit mother in the hospital. Uh, now we stepped in with something like that and provided a grant. And that's how it's set up. Jeff Daniels of Dumb and Dumber fame and national movie fame has a theater called the Purple Rose Theater in Michigan, Chelsea, Michigan, which is where he's from. And he put on an early play called, which later became the movie, Escanaba in da Moonlight as a fundraiser for us. Well, that's fairly uncommon but we're, I'm very grateful to Jeff Daniels for lending his name and his theater and his play as a fundraising event for what we're doing. That is designed but, and we have a request almost everyday for that. It's not a big fund and so we put, we have to put some limits on what we can fund, but it is very worthwhile.
Anne: Is it available to citizens of other states?
Bill: It, we incorporated it in a way that it can be used by other states as well. And so if there are citizens of other states we have, we don't have a system other than just dealing with individual requests. But it... it, we are working toward making it available in other states as well. At this time it may be a little difficult because our system is incomplete for other states. It's incorporated in a way, however, that it can, we can use it for other states as well.
Anne: Bill, is there anything that I haven't asked you that you'd...you're itching to tell us?
Bill: Victim empowerment has brought an integrity to the system that wasn't there before. Victims are now involved. Judges mention it all the time. I smile from time to time. Judges will mention to victims that they are going to get their rights and then ... and some judges will make quite a production out of that. I appreciate that a lot. Also, the system from law enforcement to prosecutors to the courts recognize that they're being watched. That victims now have a participatory role in what is happening in the courtroom and have a real interest. And what we do is print the Crime Victims' Rights Act. Now I wrote the law in a way that follows the ordinary sequence of a typical court case. And I also wrote it in plain English and all the notices that we require it clearly says "must be in plain English, understood by ordinary people." So you don't have to hire a lawyer to understand what your rights are. And then we put that Act in a booklet along with some other supporting material. We make that available to crime victims throughout the state of Michigan. This book... booklet looks like this and it is uh, it has a summary of the Act. It has the Act itself, the law itself, word for word. Every word is there. So people can read it, can say, "Well, you know what, I want to take advantage of this." And many victims in Michigan will take this booklet into the courtroom with them. They'll say, "Your Honor, here is my right under this, under the Crime Victims' Rights Act." And that's a, again a powerful reminder. We go through thousands of these every year.
|This project was supported by Grant Number 2002-VF-GX-0009 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.|